Finding a UU Spiritual Path
By Scotty McLennan
Commentary January/February 2000
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|I found Unitarian Universalism after two years
of counseling with my Presbyterian college chaplain that began when I returned
from a trip to India one summer.
I had traveled with a dozen Americans visiting South Asia as part of a theology study group. In the course of our travels, we stayed with families from different religious backgrounds. Indian Muslims taught me how to prostrate myself in prayer, facing Mecca. Jains fed us milk, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and berries, a diet based on their belief in strict nonviolence. Forbidden to destroy any animal or even any growing plant, they couldn’t harvest root crops like potatoes or carrots because this would kill the plant. Sikhs showed me how they wrapped and turbaned their uncut hair. Zoroastrians explained the towers of silence where they placed their dead to be consumed by birds, a practice that avoided defiling the sacred elements of earth, water, air, or fire through burial or cremation. On a field trip I sat near the bodhi tree, said to be descended from the tree under which the Buddha achieved enlightenment.
Hinduism, the world’s oldest religion, seemed to have spawned virtually all these traditions, or at least tolerantly embraced each sooner or later. I spent the monsoon season with a Hindu Brahmin priest and his family in northeastern India, some 200 miles from Calcutta. As the rains poured down, I passed a lot of time inside—reading, talking, and learning how to meditate with the priest. Standing six feet, two inches and weighing well over 200 pounds, he cut a huge figure compared to his compatriots (and to me, at 175 pounds). Those few weeks with him had a huge impact on my spiritual life. Each morning, I woke to the sound of the names of 108 deities being chanted through the wall that divided my room from the puja room, or chapel. Incense wafted around me and filled my lungs, and I felt spiritually transported even before I climbed out from under my mosquito netting to start the day. In the puja, the priest and his family said their daily prayers and draped flower garlands over statues and pictures of Krishna, Ganesh, and other gods. It seemed exotic and made me feel far from home. Yet India was planting its roots in my soul.
It turned out that this priest knew the Bible better than I did. Though Hindu, he kept a copy next to his bed. He’d also read the Koran from cover to cover and recited passages from its suras (chapters). And he seemed as familiar with the Buddhist scriptures as the Hindu. He spoke of many avatars throughout history—incarnations of divinity—including Krishna, Buddha, and Jesus. As I sat cross-legged each day in my white cotton dhoti and kurta, I began to think, "Maybe this is the way to spiritual maturity. Be open to all religious traditions. Choose what rings true for me in each.” But the priest kept emphasizing getting on a path, following a discipline, becoming committed to a teacher and a set of teachings. "There are many paths up the spiritual mountain,” he would say, "and they all reach the top, but you need to follow a path, and you can’t be on more than one at a time."
By summer’s end I had decided to become a Hindu. The morning I approached the priest with my decision, he took me to the front room, where we sat together on a Persian rug. The rain was coming down in sheets and banged against the roof.
“No, no!” he chided, to my astonishment once we had sat down. “You’ve missed the point of everything I’ve taught you. You’ve grown up a Christian and know a lot about that path. It’s the religion of your family and your culture. You know almost nothing of Hinduism. Go back and be the best Christian you can.”
“But I don’t believe Jesus was any more divine than Krishna or the Buddha,” I pleaded, as the rain continued pounding against the roof. “And Christians would condemn you for knowing about Jesus and not accepting him uniquely as your Lord and Savior.”
“Then go back and find a way to be an open, non-exclusive Christian, following in Jesus’ footsteps yourself but appreciating others’ journeys on their own paths.” The more I learned about others’ paths, he explained, the more it would help me progress along my own. Those words have remained my marching orders for life. Hard rain always reminds me when I forget.
After I returned to college, however, my Presbyterian chaplain didn’t like the turn I’d taken. He reminded me of Jesus’ claim in the Gospel of John to be the way, truth, and life and that no one could come to the Father except through him. I answered that Jesus in the same chapter of John insists that “in my Father’s house there are many rooms.” Surely some of those rooms housed Krishna, Buddha, and other avatars.
After many such discussions, my chaplain introduced me to Unitarian Universalism. “Go check out that denomination!” he nearly shouted one day in exasperation. “They seem to think and talk like you.” He explained that it was a free tradition, appreciative of all the world’s religions and prescribing no dogma or theological doctrine. That meant people could put different adjectives before the words Unitarian Universalist—including Jewish, Christian, humanist, agnostic, and Buddhist. They were all welcome.
I started reading about the tradition and going to a local church. I worried at first that it seemed terribly heady and too much of a religious potpourri, rather than a tradition supporting people to develop particular spiritual disciplines in depth. Thirty years later, though, I’m still here as a practicing UU Christian, learning about my path not only from other UU Christians but also through constant dialogue with UU humanists, pagans, Buddhists, and others. I still agree with the Hindu priest that the spiritual mountain is best climbed along marked trails and paths; yet, learning about others’ adventures on their paths opens up vistas I could never have on my side of the mountain.
The Rev. Scotty McLennan is the University Chaplain at Tufts and the author of Finding Your Religion: When the Faith You Grew Up with Has Lost Its Meaning, from which this commentary is adapted. The Rev. Scott Sloan, a character in Garry Trudeau’s comic strip Doonesbury, was modeled after McLennan.
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